“Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:22-25 (NRSV)

Why is it important for Christians to gather? Some people would say we need to gather to collect offerings, so the church can survive. Others may think that it is necessary to gather because church is the place where God can be worshiped by God’s people. I have heard also that when people miss church, people feel empty. We need to remember that Paul is writing for the first century church, which is not probably the same image we think about church today.

Churches back in that time were basically houses hosting a few people who gathered clandestinely to know more about this Jesus, the son of God. They were simultaneously surrounded by multiple gods lifted up by people who praised living kings and rulers from the empires.

Paul, once convicted about Jesus’ love, talks about the power of gathering because by getting together, it gives identity to the worshippeople of God; identity in love, compassion, grace, and favor. Identity that is marked by the faith. Faith in the one who came to give his life against all political systems imposed. Through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, Paul was able to teach that a king is not the one who rules through oppression, but who loves with such power that brings hope to those that were lacking of it.

Gathering on a regular basis helps us to build self-discipline, and while the discipline takes place, our souls are transformed gradually to become what God intents for us. How? Through gatherings, we may see the reflection of our sinful nature in each other and at the same time we may reflect the grace that God provides. As part of congregational formation, the transformation may occur to help us grow as individuals as well as Body of Christ.

Now, the challenge that Paul brings us in this letter is to not only taking the image of gatherings in a place like our church, but also taking this personal and communal formation to other spheres of lives: home, work, friends, and enemies with the purpose to see “one another to love and good deeds.” It liberates us, frees us, and reshapes us.

Prayer: God almighty. Guide us to intentionally be open to your voice, so we can take the church -your church- with us wherever we go. Break the barriers of our minds, hearts, and souls, and change us in such a way that the transformation never ends. Please, forgive us for limiting your gatherings to one place. Merciful God, in your powerful son’s name, we pray. Amen.

Carlos Reyes

Friday, May 10 2013Image

BALTIMORE, MD – The reality of death and loss is one with which the church and its leadership must cope every day.  Families lose loved ones to disease, age, and inexplicable accidents.  Consoling and encouraging these families is difficult at best and heart wrenching at worst.  It is the challenging task of reminding them that God has a plan for all lives, and a part of that plan is for each life to come to an end in this world.  Some are receptive and understanding, some try to receive it only as hopeful optimism, and others can’t see past their tears and their hurt to anything that God has planned.  Grief comes in many forms, but none so great as the grief felt when one person thinks themselves so audacious as to take the life of another, especially the life of a young boy or girl, making death and loss greater than a pain with which to cope; it becomes a tragedy of the human condition, and a heartbreak for an entire community.  May 9 was a day of such tragedy and heartbreak, as  Rev. Bruce and Mrs. Deborah Haskins were dealt a crushing blow as their son, Joseph, was gunned down in Baltimore, Maryland.

            In a city of tremendous diversity and culture, one reality has made itself glaringly apparent over the last few years that I’ve spent with its people; gun violence is an accepted facet of this community.  No outrage, no disgust at such a wanton act inflicted upon yet another young African-American male, just a brief moment of shock and awe, then back to daily life.  Vitality interlaced with cruelty, as if it is essential to one’s existence in this city.

            I am angry.  I am disgusted, and I am outraged.  I am not only enraged by those who would commit such an act, but also by those who claim that they love and follow God, the giver of life.  Those who  live out their faith as United Methodists in Baltimore, the birthplace of Methodism in America, should be up in arms against the rampant, ravenous, unchecked spirit of violence which plagues all who live here.  We are the people of God who should be claiming dominion over the earth, as God intended, yet we are too timid to claim ownership of the streets where we live and work.  This is unacceptable.  There is too much at stake when we consider that most of these victims of gun violence comprise our next generations.  We are idling while the preservation of our culture and future is decimated. That is unacceptable.

            While I understand the trepidation Christians have when facing the threat of gun violence, we must acknowledge that we have already seen that our elected officials are unable to agree on sensible gun legislation.  Their message is clear: the people must take control and reclaim those environments embroiled in the conflict between the sanctity of life and the violent counter-culture that demands silent compliance from the masses.  Our fear is more deadly than a bullet in that it ensures that more criminals can fire without apprehension.  The United Methodist Church must make a stand and act to infuse the Holy Spirit back into the soul of the Baltimore community.  We must turn our fear into fuel for the fight against the spirit of violence that has nested in the souls of too many people.  It is our responsibility as citizens, as people of God, to protect and defend those souls from such a spirit, and to protect all of our people from the destruction that such a spirit heralds.  Joseph Haskins must be a name that rings in the hearts of every Christian as we lead those hearts to take up courageous action in confronting our local, state, and federal legislators, our police department, and even confronting the passivity in each other.  Reclaim Baltimore in the name of God.  Let Joseph Haskins be the last.

How will the church respond to addressing the wealth inequity in America?  Poverty continues to grow, the middle class continues to shrink and the wealthy are not being challenged to moral accountability with their wealth.  10% from the top 1% of the wealthy we could significantly reverse the trend of poor education that is the root of our mass incarceration epidemic.

“Amazing and Uncomfortable Grace” Several years ago, there was an absolutely fascinating study done of America’s favorite music and one of the discoveries was that for many Americans one of their favorite songs is actually an old hymn, Amazing Grace. Perhaps you know how it goes: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” But what exactly is grace? And what makes it amazing? You know, when we use the word grace in ordinary conversation, we tend to downsize the word. We’ll say things like, “She’s a very graceful young woman,” and we mean she dances well. Or, “He’s a very gracious host,” and we mean he says nice things at dinner parties. We tend to use the word grace in small ways. But when the New Testament uses the word grace, it uses it in a very big way. It’s a powerful word. It’s an amazing word. In fact, it’s so powerful that sometimes grace can be quite uncomfortable. When the New Testament uses the English word grace, it’s actually the translation of a Greek word, charis, which means “gift.” And this is the New Testament’s way of saying that at the very center of life there is a God who is not a punitive judge or a scolding parent, but a God who gives gift after gift after gift. That’s grace.

Dr. Thomas Long is from Atlanta, Georgia, where he is Professor of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Tom is a Presbyterian minister and the author of several books on the art of preaching. Read the Entire Sermon